Fire

With Under-20 World Cup back, Fire's Serbian coaching trio relive historic title

With Under-20 World Cup back, Fire's Serbian coaching trio relive historic title

In the early hours of the American morning on Thursday, the United States Under-20 men’s national team beat New Zealand 6-0 in South Korea to advance to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup.

It is the second straight U-20 World Cup in which the U.S. has made it to the quarterfinals. The last time the Americans were knocked out in penalty kicks by Veljko Paunovic’s Serbia.

Paunovic and Serbia went on to win that tournament. Serbia’s historic victory, the first for Serbia in any World Cup at any age level, was the big boost to Paunovic’s coaching resume that led the Chicago Fire to hire him five months later.

“Of course it gave me I think recognition,” Paunovic said after Fire training on Thursday. “Winning the World Cup is always one of the greatest achievements so it gives you also the confidence that what you are doing is the right way to do (things), even (when) you always believe in your work. The title like that gives you the extra motivation and actually shapes and opens the path for you to keep working and improving on yourself and gives you more opportunities for a job obviously.”

Two of Paunovic’s countrymen from the coaching staff of that victorious Serbian team followed him to the Fire. Marko Mitrovic is one of the Fire’s assistant coaches and Aleksandar Saric coaches the goalkeepers. For everyone involved in that Serbian team, it was a life-changing event.

Serbia has had success in other sports. Tennis star Novak Djokovic has won 12 Grand Slam titles. Serbia has Olympic gold medals in men’s volleyball (2000), men’s water polo (2016) and the men’s basketball team won a pair of FIBA World Cups (1998 and 2002).

In soccer though, Serbia had never won a World Cup at any age level before. As a combined Yugoslavia, the country won the 1987 U-20 World Cup, but independent Serbia hadn’t found success on its own.

“That’s probably the biggest achievement in history of Serbian soccer,” Mitrovic said. “We are always the generation. Like the Cubs here with people waiting 100 years for the Cubs to win the World Series. That’s something that people in Serbia dreamed that Serbia would become the World Cup champion. We had more 100,000 people waiting in the streets for us after that. (It) is probably everyday that I think about that. That’s something that stays behind us through all our lives.”

With a population of just over 7 million, Serbia has fewer people than the Chicagoland area.

“It’s difficult to win MLS here with one city,” Saric said. “Imagine to win the world with the population the size of Chicago winning the world championship, which really is a great achievement.”

The coaches are able to keep in touch with the players from the championship team through a WhatsApp group. They communicate regularly.

“They are now all around the world, but we are still in touch,” Saric said. “We celebrate the date also when we win that.”

With a new set of players and the coaching trio now with the Fire, Serbia didn’t make it to the final round of European qualifying tournament. With Serbia out, all three took note of the success of the U.S. team.

“They are doing a great job,” Mitrovic said of the U.S. “We played against them (two years ago) and they are there again now, which I think that (coach) Tab Ramos is doing great things with that national team. Doing it twice in a row, quarterfinals, it’s a big achievement.”

Saric fondly recalled the penalty shootout in the quarterfinal between the U.S. and Serbia. Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajković, who was named goalkeeper of the tournament, and American goalkeeper Zack Steffen, now the starter for the Columbus Crew, both made three saves in the first eight rounds before Serbia finally won in the ninth round.

“I said because I respect what I saw in Steffen’s game before we play America, I said who wins this game, he will be probably the best goalkeeper of the tournament,” Saric said. “I said that for our newspapers. It was an amazing (shootout). We lead three times. Rajkovic saved three penalties and Steffen always when we need to score, he saved... Then it happened Rajkovic saved one extra penalty and our captain scored.”

The U.S. plays its quarterfinal against Venezuela on Sunday. Paunovic, Mitrovic and Saric have their eyes on this year’s tournament, but from a different vantage point. They are looking for potential players to bring to the Fire, although memories of two years ago are still strong.

“It’s one of the competitions that for me has a very personal and deep root inside of my feelings because of what we achieved for my country, but also it’s the great opportunity to see great young players performing and competing for the World Cup,” Paunovic said.

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”